Learning More Than Spanish South of the Border
“Guatemala is in Mexico, right?” my sister asks through our precarious Wi-Fi connection.
“No,” I laugh, shaking my head at the white washed wall of my little concrete bedroom in the heart of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. “It’s a small, mountainous country to the south of Mexico, they share a border.”
“Monica, cena está lista,” my host mother calls from the small colonial style courtyard.
“I’ve got to go, dinner is ready. Love you sis.”
“Love you too.” The call ends and so does my time speaking English.
“Ya voy,” I call back through my window. I glance at the pictures of my friends and family smiling down at me from their place of honor above my worn wooden desk. The cheap tape I’m using to hold them is failing and as I walk out the metal door, a picture of my family and I at Christmas flutters to the ground.
Shirking Responsibility or Widening Horizons?
Six months earlier I was graduating from the University of California at Davis with a Bachelor’s of Science in Biological Sciences and a minor in Cultural Anthropology. I donned the heavy navy-blue robe, walked across the floor, and threw my cap along with the others. Then we all went our separate ways.
Some of us went straight into jobs, others pursued graduate degrees, and some truly irresponsible souls, like myself, bought plane tickets. I sold it to my parents and myself as a chance to learn more about the country that 1.2 million people in the US first called home, to gain fluency in Spanish, and to better understand our southern neighbors. I told myself being fluent in Spanish would be important for a career in public health in the US. I told myself six months was finally enough time to learn Spanish and have it stick. I told myself many things, but if I was being honest with myself, I would have told myself that this was my adventure, my time to be young and reckless, my chance to explore the world before a career shackled me to the ground. So, I got on a plane.
Picking Your Study Abroad Program: When, What, How Long, and Where
I chose the program I would study with long before I arrived in Xela (an abbreviated version of Xelajú, the traditional K’iche’ name for Quetzaltenango). I found the medical Spanish immersion program, Somos Hermanos, during a break between classes in the spring of my junior year at UC Davis. The website looked interesting and it ticked all my requirements so I applied. I was looking for a program that was at least six months long and focused on Spanish for the health professions, as I had studied abroad for three months before in Mendoza, Argentina and found that three months was simply too short for my brain to acquire a language.
It is important to make a list of attributes that you would like to have in a study abroad program before making your selection. The most important things to decide on are: when you will go abroad, what you will study, how long you will be abroad for, and where you will go. The when for me was easy, it would be a gap year between my undergraduate career and graduate school as I was not ready to jump straight into a master’s degree. The what was determined by prior experience; I wanted to finish the task I started in Mendoza, I wanted to become fluent in Spanish. How long depends on your when (my when afforded me at least a year) and your personal experience of your what. I found that I had not become fluent in three months in Argentina so I knew my program had to be at least six months.
Once you have decided on your when, what, and how long then you can start to look for your where. I know this seems counterintuitive, picking where you want to study abroad last, but it beats showing up to a program that gets you no closer to your goals.
When thinking about where you would like to study abroad, always consider your when, what, and how long, but also factor in the following:
- Do you want to volunteer or work while you are studying? If so, check with your program to see if this is possible. If not, you may need to continue your search.
- How much does it cost? Some programs cost substantially more than others and it is a good idea to know the cost from the start so you do not get your heart set on a program you cannot afford.
- Are you planning to travel before, during, or after? Traveling on your own is an amazing part of study abroad, but if you plan to do it during your program it is a good idea to check if it is allowed by your program. Some programs will offer quite full schedules that leave little time for solo travel.
The Study Part of Study Abroad: Beyond the Classroom
During my time in Xela, I attended one-on-one Spanish classes for four hours every morning at the Sol Latino Language School; read extensively about the social, historical, and political situation in Guatemala; attended group discussions with my fellow classmates on topics ranging from the Guatemalan Civil War to immigration; and unwound a couple of times each week with salsa classes at Salsa Rosa.
Focusing on your studies is an important part of study abroad, after all you are going abroad to learn, but do not let your learning be confined to the classroom. The beauty of studying abroad is that, as cheesy as it sounds, the world is your classroom. If you are learning a new language through an immersion program you are practicing your skills every minute of every hour of every day. This immersion is how you learn, through trial by fire.
The first few weeks will be very hard. You will get frustrated when you cannot understand a cab driver’s accent, but you learn to adapt so you ask him to write down what he is saying. You make mistakes, your default answer becomes “sí, sí!” even if it was not a yes or no question; but, after a while you being to understand. Then one day you have a full conversation with a kind lady on the bus. It takes until you’re sitting on your bed for you to realize that you understood every word about her cousin’s romantic entanglements. You smile up at your bare walls, silently thanking the world for chatty strangers.
Classes are an important part of study abroad, but do not limit yourself to your formal classes. Always look for different opportunities to learn, such as the following:
- Your daily life is full of places to learn, from having a chat with a waiter to asking for directions on the street. Talk to locals as much as possible, they will teach you more than you ever could learn in a classroom setting.
- Make local friends. I know it gets tiring speaking in a foreign language all day, but do not let this mental fatigue prevent you from making friends where you are.
- Avoid only associating with people in your program; they may be lovely people, but you went abroad to learn a new language, not to speak in your native tongue all day.
Where to Live: Dorm, Apartment, or Homestay?
Most students in a study abroad program live in one of three arrangements: dorms, apartments, or homestays. Dorms are more common to university programs and this option of accommodation may be hard to find in programs without a partner university. Apartments are common to student organized programs and work well if you want a study abroad experience that is highly individualized.
My program, Somos Hermanos, placed students in homestays. Homestays are great for anyone looking for a full immersion program as they require you to speak your chosen language all day. Yet, there are some downsides to homestays as your experience is highly dependent on the home you get placed in. I did not have a great experience in my homestay in Guatemala and ended up moving into my own apartment after three months.
However, I had friends who absolutely loved their homestays and are still in contact with their host families. For example, my homestay in Argentina was wonderful and we are still in contact over Facebook. My main piece of advice is that, no matter what your living arrangement is, you need to advocate for yourself. Get to know your program coordinators and if problems arise contact them sooner rather than later. You do not want to waste your study abroad experience being unhappy due to a living situation.
Your living situation should work for you, so contact your program coordinators to figure out what your options will be abroad. The main options are as follows:
- Dorms are great for getting to know other university students, but are often only available through programs with a partner university.
- Apartments offer a highly individualized study abroad experience, but can be isolating if you do not attempt to integrate yourself into your new community.
- Homestays are the best option for someone looking for a total language immersion, as you are living the language and the culture 24/7. However, there can be issues around student and host family cohesion so make sure you and your host family click. If problems arise, contact your coordinator to remedy the issue.
Free Time: Dance the Night Away
Somos Hermanos is an intensive language immersion program that focuses on increasing the cultural competency of medical professionals in the United States. Because of this, the program offers a full schedule of classes; group discussions; group trips to El Salvador, Mexico, and other cities in Guatemala; and volunteer activities. Despite this, I had free time and I hope you will too, as your free time is when you find the true gems of your city. As for me, I found salsa.
I am not a dancer, but travel has an amazing way of making us into the boldest, most fun-loving, adventurous versions of ourselves so take the person you were in your home country and throw away any assumptions you made about them. I have classic white girl rhythm and no dance experience, but Somos had organized a free salsa lesson for the group. I’m a sucker for all things free so I ignored the critical voice in my head reminding me of my two left feet and decided to embarrass myself in front of my new-found friends. It was the best decision I could have made.
I loved the way the local women could move under the bright lights of the discotecas. A diminutive, soft spoke woman would grow into a tantric queen when she stepped onto the dance floor, filling the space with her desire for life and movement. As an awkward gringa, I desperately wanted what these women had, the poised allure in every hand flick, the self-assurance in every hair toss. So, I danced.
I danced two times a week, every week, for six months and by the end I had learned enough to become my own version of a dancing queen.
Try something new when you are abroad. You have nothing to lose, after all any embarrassment incurred abroad will stay there when you head home. So, put on your dancing shoes and let go of the worry that was holding you back at home.
Expectations vs. Reality
I did not expect to fall in love with salsa when I left home on New Year’s Day 2016. I did not expect to move out of my homestay. I did not expect to become good friends with my salsa teacher, a Guatemala woman in her 40s. I did not expect to commiserate with her over the trials of being a woman in a country where machismo rules. I did not expect many of the wonderful and terrible things that would occur over my six-month stay in Guatemala.
You will never be able expect everything that will happen to you during your time abroad and that is okay. Did I wish that I could go out at night without having to find a male friend to walk with me? Yes, but I learned how to live within cultural constraints that Guatemalan women live within every day. It was a hard lesson for my bull-headed Italian-American self to learn, but it was an important lesson to better understand the lives of those around me.
The reality of study abroad will never look like the airbrushed brochure. In truth, the reality of living abroad has far more bouts of diarrhea than any colorful handout will tell you. It might even be miserable at times, but still, that is okay. Life is a wonderful, terrible, messy thing and even more so when you’re out of your comfort-zone. But, it is there, solidly outside of your comfort-zone while squatting on the toilet cursing the street meat you so enthusiastically inhaled at 2 am, that you grow. Through the challenges of learning a foreign language, of surviving hundreds of miles from home, and of embracing a new culture you will become more than the person who stepped onto that plane, overstuffed backpack and all.
Taking the time to study abroad anywhere in the world will be an amazing experience, but I must make my argument for Guatemala. Guatemala is a beautiful, mountainous country rich in culture and opportunities for learning. The Guatemalan accent is crisp and clear, making it one of the easiest countries to learn Spanish in. Language schools abound in Xela, a vibrant city sitting amid the clouds and volcanic peaks at 8,000 ft. Natural wonders such as Semuc Champey, Volcán Tajumulco, and the jungles of Tikal will call to any nature lover’s wild heart. But, in the end, I chose Guatemala because the world told me not to.
Americans are constantly inundated with fear mongering cries of hatred directed at our southern border. We are a dismally unaware country, with many people assuming everything south of the border is Mexico. Central America is vilified with claims that every person in this part of the world is a drug dealer or a rapist. America, we need to do better.
We need to travel south, to learn who our neighbors are and to realize that they are people too, people who, when you get right down to it, are not that different from ourselves. We need to understand the issues that bind our countries together (immigration, trade policies, etc.) from all perspectives, not just our own. Travel teaches us that we are more than just our nationalities. Travel builds bridges, not walls.
General Information About Guatemala